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Need to catchup with the Doctor’s latest exploits in time and space, or desperate to re-watch Sherlock to spot the clues? The best way is with BBC iPlayer (free), and the functional iPad version is one of the most popular apps in the UK. Find out why…

What Is BBC iPlayer?

Launched on Christmas Day 2007, BBC iPlayer began life as a web-based catch-up TV service for British viewers to stream or download TV shows that they had missed. Buoyed by a popular selection of shows (including a Doctor Who Christmas special), iPlayer was an instant hit and it wasn’t long before the service was available for games consoles, mobile phones and the ability to enjoy live TV and radio was added.

In more recent times, set-top boxes for media providers such as Sky TV and Virgin Media have been able to run custom iPlayer apps, but it is on mobile platforms that the service is most popular. The iPhone and iPod BBC iPlayer app was released in March 2008, and the iPad version – reviewed here – first saw action in February 2011.

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Note: There is also an international version of BBC iPlayer, launched in July 2011. This is functionally similar to the app reviewed here, but also includes shows produced by other broadcasters.

As of 2013, radio has been removed from the iPlayer app. Thanks to the BBC increasing its on-demand audio programming, BBC radio now has a dedicated app, iPlayer Radio!

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Browsing For Shows To Watch

Available free from iTunes (the same app is available for iPhone and iPad) to users in the UK, the BBC iPlayer app is visually striking, finger friendly and very easy to use.

Upon launch, you’ll be greeted with a selection of currently “Featured” TV shows, through which you can browse left and right. You might also tap Most Popular or On Now to find out what other people are watching or to find out what is currently being broadcast on BBC television. A large selection of live programming – particularly original productions – is available to watch live, but this does require you be geographically situated within the UK.

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The TV Guide button enables you to browse the schedules for the BBC’s nine channels, while Categories and Search in the top-right corner offer more ways to find something to watch.

Finally, a menu bar across the bottom of the display enables you to switch between TV and Radio (or a promotional ad for the radio app), any shows you have recorded as Favourites (subsequent editions will be added here so you don’t miss them) and any that have been downloaded.

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When you have found a TV show you want to know more about, tap to view further details. You can see, for instance, whether or not the show is suitable for younger viewers. iPlayer will also display any similar shows that you might be interested in viewing.

The Add to Favourites button can be found in this view; more information, meanwhile, will display the programme’s promotional description, duration, the date it was originally broadcast on and how long it will be available for on iPlayer.

Stream or Download?

When you watch a show on iPlayer you have a choice between downloading and streaming. Streaming across a mobile network will result in reduced quality of video playback, so if you’re prepared you can select Download (this will require a Wi-Fi connection) and have your chosen show(s) downloaded to your device.

You might do this if you’re preparing to travel and won’t have access to the Internet, for instance.

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Reading this it might seem that streaming is the poorer option – after all, why bother if you can download the show and keep it? Well, here’s the news: you can’t keep it. BBC iPlayer downloads are DRM protected (that’s Digital Rights Management, a method to prevent piracy which James previously explained What Is DRM & Why Does It Exist If It's So Evil? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is DRM & Why Does It Exist If It's So Evil? [MakeUseOf Explains] Digital Rights Management is the latest evolution of copy protection. It’s the biggest cause of user frustration today, but is it justified? Is DRM a necessary evil in this digital age, or is the model... Read More ), making them unplayable after 30 days.

If you choose to download regularly and have the bandwidth to spare it is worth switching to Higher Quality Downloads, particularly if you want to take advantage of your iPad’s high resolution display. Tap More, then tap Higher Quality Downloads to enable this, although be aware programs will take longer to download and occupy more space on your device.

Parental Lock Settings

Responsible parents will no doubt be interested to learn that parental settings can be set up on BBC iPlayer, enabling shows broadcast after 9pm to be restricted from tiny fingers.

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The BBC offers two children’s TV channels, something like 30 hours of programming a day, so it isn’t inconceivable that young eyes could end up watching and listening to something as unsuitable as Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, Crimewatch or Don’t Scare the Hare.

Tap More to open the expanded menu (where you will find links to the app terms and the BBC’s privacy and cookies policies) and tap Parental Guidance. Here you can activate the Parental Guidance Lock Settings, set a 4-digit PIN and add a security question in case the PIN is forgotten.

Watch TV On Your iPad, Anywhere

BBC iPlayer delivered a liberating new way to watch TV shows when it was launched and that spirit continues to this day.

The iPad app is enhanced by its polished presentation and a small collection of easily-activated options. It might be light on features, but then it doesn’t need bells and whistles – with the cream of British television ready to view this is an app you shouldn’t miss of it is available to you. We like it so much we included it in our list of The Best iPad Apps.

Download: BBC iPlayer (free, universal)

  1. Chris M
    February 9, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    If you want to base the functionality of an app based on the popularity of locale downloads in a global market, your data will always be flawed. Have you tested that the TV content is available "anywhere" as the subtitle purports?

    • Christian C
      February 10, 2014 at 11:19 am

      Again, you're missing the point, and indeed a key element of how articles work.

      In an article, there is a hierarchical structure. The sub-title or sub-heading is secondary to the main title and its lede. Therefore I don't need to test the content is available by your skewed definition of "anywhere" as we've already established in the lede that this is a UK-based app. The use of "anywhere" in the heading to which you are tiresomely still referring to is within this quite clear definition, and might mean a car, queue, park, bedroom, etc.

      You know, anywhere.

  2. Chris
    February 5, 2014 at 11:31 pm

    "Watch TV On Your iPad, Anywhere" is intentionally misleading since the iPlayer is only available "to users in the UK." I will presume the "international version" is more accurately described as an international content version, which is also unavailable for download outside the UK.

    • Christian C
      February 8, 2014 at 8:59 pm

      I'm sorry, but the heading you refer to is not "intentionally misleading" at all.

      The intro: "the functional iPad version is one of the most popular apps in the UK," qualifies it adequately.

  3. Theron D
    February 5, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    I can't find this on the app store. Is this only for Euro downloads?

  4. Corina C
    February 5, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    This looks interesting. I'm not an "iPerson" so I can't use it but there are several in my family that are so I'm sure they will want to check it out!

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